Innovative approaches to the challenges of foster care explored at MLaw symposium

By Katie Vloet
U-M Law

A significant overhaul is needed in order to better care for and represent the 400,000 children who are in the foster care system at any given time, said panelists and speakers at the recent Rethinking Foster Care symposium at Michigan Law.

Among the changes recommended at the event was the need to engage and empower parents and youth in decision-making in child welfare cases. In addition, participants said, solutions need to encompass a broad range of anti-poverty initiatives, and a public health model should be developed so that families are supported rather than investigated, said Vivek Sankaran, clinical professor at Michigan Law and director of the Child Advocacy Law Clinic and the Child Welfare Appellate Clinic.

“We came away from the symposium with a strong sense that we need to engage many disciplines in creating solutions to problems in the child welfare system,” Sankaran said. “It’s also clear that many more families need help from public agencies but that far fewer children should be removed from those families. We need to develop ways to help families without separating them.”

The symposium was held during a time in which foster care systems across the country have been the subject of federal lawsuits, have repeatedly failed federal audits, and have been vilified by the news media and commentators.

Regarding not just foster care but the child welfare system in general, keynote speaker Michael Wald presented several ideas for reform. “We need to create a detailed sense in our own communities about what our existing structures look like, we have to think about putting into place a system that is implementable and has the dollars to be able to implement. It will only be done in coalitions,” said Wald, professor of law emeritus at Stanford and a leading national authority on legal policy toward children.

“I believe that the step forward has to be to put all the systems in a continuous improvement model. The question is to not look for magic programs,” he said. “And parents have to have a lead role. If parents don’t believe in it, they’re not going to invest in it.”

Some of the debates of the day focused on the appropriate level of intrusion into the lives of the birth family and foster family and what a lawyer’s role in the child welfare system should be. “When I was a social worker, I used to think a lawyer’s role should be minimal,” said Professor Don Duquette??, founder of the Child Advocacy Law Clinic at Michigan Law, the oldest such clinic in the United States. “But lawyers are more important to making decisions than I initially thought. If you get good parent representation, good representation of children, good agency representation, you will get better decisions.”